For Texas volleyball, December is indeed the most wonderful time of the year.
We’re not talking about hosting parties, roasting marshmallows or caroling. It’s the NCAA tournament — not the holiday season — that has become the highlight of the Longhorns’ annual calendar in December.
Texas, which has made it to five straight Final Fours, hosts Fairfield in its NCAA opener at 7 p.m. on Friday. The Longhorns wrapped up the regular season with a 24-2 record and the Big 12’s undisputed championship. The Longhorns are the NCAA tournament’s sixth overall seed.
“I think this is, we can all say, our favorite time of the year,” sophomore outside hitter Micaya White said. “Just being able to compete with all the teams in the country, just not in the Big 12, is always exciting. There’s always nerves going in, but I think they’re good nerves.”
Some may argue that Texas is under-seeded since the Longhorns are ranked No. 2 nationally in the AVCA’s national poll. Texas, however, has been No. 2 before. UT was beaten by Nebraska for the NCAA championship in 2015 and to Stanford for last year’s title. The Longhorns, who have advanced to the NCAA title game in three of those last five Final Fours, won their last national championship in 2012.
The scent of those silver shortcomings still lingers even though senior libero Cat McCoy said she hasn’t watched any film of last year’s four-set loss to Stanford. Neither has middle blocker Mirta Baselovic, one of the team’s four seniors and three captains.
“We’re still bitter about that,” Baselovic said two weeks ago, as Texas was entering the home stretch of the regular season. “We don’t want to go back to the locker room and go through the same thing again, the same talk and hear Jerritt (Elliott) talk about ‘Next year, we’ve got it,’ because we don’t.”
Texas is led by senior Chiaka Ogbogu, the Big 12’s player of the year. The 6-2 middle blocker leads the conference in hitting percentage (.389) and blocks (1.74 per set). She’s nine blocks away from setting UT’s career record.
White and fellow all-conference outside hitters Lexi Sun and Ebony Nwanebu are respectively averaging 3.40, 3.44 and 2.51 kills per set. Freshman setter Ashley Shook quarterbacks the Longhorns with her 10.8 assists per set. McCoy’s 4.40 digs per set would be a single-season record if the season ended today.
“I feel like we’re playing good,” White said. “There’s always room for improvement, but I think we’re on a good incline.”
Since it dropped a four-set match to Minnesota on Sept. 8, Texas has won 18 straight matches. The Longhorns will attempt to extend that winning streak against Fairfield, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s champion.
Fairfield (25-6) has won its last 21 matches and swept seven straight opponents. The MAAC’s two-time player of the year, senior outside hitter Skyler Day is averaging 3.8 kills per set. Freshman middle blocker Luci Albertson is a Cedar Park product who leads Fairfield in blocks (0.91 per set).
The Stags were swept by Texas in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament.
“They’re a good, little, scrappy team. They’re a little undersized, but they’ve got some good arms and they’ve got some nice athletes on the pins,” said Elliott, Texas’ longtime coach. “This first round is about us and how we play. That’s what the tournament’s about.”
If victorious, Texas will return to Gregory Gym on Saturday to play either North Carolina State (20-11) or Oregon State (21-11). North Carolina State and Oregon State’s match will precede the Texas-Fairfield battle on Friday.